Should startups fork out for branding?

Should startups fork out for branding?

There are thousands of articles on the web about branding a startup, with a range of conflicting views on the subject that cause no end of confusion.

They’ll tell you that good branding is the single most important marketing tool for a startup – or a luxury you can do without. They suggest budgets ranging from ten pounds to £20,000+. Such articles stress the importance of getting your branding 100% right from the get-go …or that it can wait till you’re more established.

In my experience, most startups need to do just FOUR things to ensure they have all the components for their branding at startup stage:

Of course, every new business needs a name, and you’ll need to register the business as a legal entity. Naturally you’ll want an easy to remember web and email address, so you’ll want a domain that’s the same as your business name. You’ll need social networking accounts too, ideally using the same name. And you’ll need a logo to add to the top of your simple, but attractive new website. Finally, you may need business cards.

This is all you need to brand a new business, and it’s what I call Foundation Branding.

The bonus: you don’t need a branding agency.

A startup doesn't need an innovative website with technical bells and whistles, or a full set of marketing literature and a comprehensive suite of graphics and imagery. It doesn’t need fancy branded giveaways, and it definitely doesn’t need a detailed brand strategy with branding guidelines.

So if Foundation Branding doesn't need all this extra stuff, do you need to pay a branding agency? For most startups, the answer is: No, you don’t.

I’m not dismissing the work of branding creatives or naming consultants – it’s how I’ve earned my living for years, and many consultants do brilliantly creative and effective work. My issue is that, by definition, startups are at the pre-launch stage when creating their branding.

Whilst we’d all like to think we know our place in the market and who our customers will be when we’re up and running, this view is likely to be based on a mixture of supposition, guesswork, and wishful thinking. Even the most thorough market research or clearest brand vision is soon challenged by annoying factors like real world customers and market forces. Sure, you want to get the branding right, but pre-launch is too soon to make a significant investment in it.

Too many articles on startup branding cite examples of headline-grabbing tech heroes with well-heeled angel backers. These guys can afford to blow a ton of cash on brand development (and they can afford to do it again when they need a rebrand a year later). This is a world away from most smart startups – where the focus is increasingly on adopting the Lean approach and getting out there with your MVP quickly and cost effectively.

Because a startup doesn't need elaborate brand development, it doesn't need to appoint a branding agency. Great news!

But it still needs Foundation Branding, and to help you on your way, here are some pointers for doing most of the work yourself:

1. How do you go about naming your own startup?

The first (unhelpful) answer is; it depends who you are. 

Some people have a natural feel for this kind of stuff, and are more emotionally-tuned than analytical – so they know in their heart what they’re looking for, and will recognise the right name when it presents itself. If you’re in this camp, you could be well-placed to tackle the naming challenge yourself. 

Other people aren’t interested in attempting the naming process, and have the budget to commission a naming or branding agency.

Novanym branding expert Dave Clark has put together this useful step-by-step post on How to name your business. It includes valuable tips for generating name ideas, as well as the all-important process of filtering your shortlist. Check it out.

If you’re more left brained (analytical) than right brained (creative), then you can still follow Dave’s advice – whilst being aware that spotting ‘the one’ will probably be tough. 

However, here’s a tip that might set you in the right direction: Brand your character, not your company. Stay with me, because this isn’t as cod-spiritual as it sounds...

In this entertaining post at the entrepreneur's advisory site Unreasonable, Daniel Epstein explains how, when coming up with his business name, he decided to listen to his gut, and ignored family and friends who worried the name was too challenging or sounded negative.

But what I really like is that Daniel effectively branded his company’s character, not its product or service. This means that as well as having a distinctive and engaging brand name, Unreasonable could change direction or develop into new areas in the future, without needing to be re-named. Although many things may change, its character will not.

Don’t take this example too literally – using dictionary words is generally not a great idea (and impossible if you want the .com domain). The real take-out is that you should work out what your new business feels like...

Is it all about youth, or tradition? Are you an earnest, safe pair of hands – or a fun-loving innovator? Is it all about technology, or the personal touch? Are you cheap-as-chips, or the value-added premium option? These characteristics all lead to certain types and styles of business names, and rules others out. 

For example, if your startup is a consultancy or advisory service, then professional business names like Commencis, Intignis or Corventive feel polished and evoke intelligence ...and they do this without using generic keywords. Alternatively, names like Datota, Cynor or Vioteq have a more scientific feel, which could be a great name for a technology business.

Action: If you can identify the character and personality of your company you’ll be well-placed to recognise the name ideas that would be a good fit for your business, as and when they come along. And you’ll instantly know when the ideas don’t fit, too.

2. What comes first; business name or domain name?

Like it or not, when it comes to domain names, the .com is still king. As well as signalling authority, a perfect no-compromise .com address gives a business the opportunity to ‘own’, and possibly even trademark, their business name. (We've been able to trademark our own Novanym brand name, for example.)

If someone else owns the .com of your business name, the best you can ever be is second best.

But more than ownership of a name, a .com is the ‘default' domain that every web-user in the world knows and can remember. It’s also international, so you’ll only ever need one domain, wherever your business finds its customers. 

So I'm afraid the answer to the question "what comes first?” is that you must work on both at the same time.

Your domain name must not be an afterthought once you've found a name you love.

If the .com domain you want has been secured by someone else, you either need to buy it from them (if it’s for sale and you can afford it), or keep looking for another name.

And don’t accept compromises,. So avoid hyphens and bolt-on words, and avoid flavour-of-the-moment 'not-com' TLDs like .london, .pizza, .luxury, etc. Whist some of these might look great, the jury is out on whether customers can and will remember them. And, at the time of writing, I'm not aware of an example of a not-com brand that's successfully broken through to the mainstream.

To get that elusive perfect .com domain, you could approach the challenge from the other direction – by looking through websites that sell domains.

Try Googling “brandable domain names”, browse through the sites, and see if anything meets your brief. The quality and pricing varies wildly, and the quantity can be overwhelming, so you really need to know what you’re looking for before you go down this route (see point 1 above!). But it’s well worth a go.

Action: However you tackle the issue of naming your business, you can't treat the domain name separately. If you're looking to build a business – and a brand – with real value, you have to work on both at the same time.

3. Do I need a fancy logo?

You can probably tell that this is a rhetorical question; no, you don’t need a fancy logo. You don’t need a high minded concept, bespoke typography, or visual metaphors.

There’s a place for creative cleverness – and go ahead if you have access to an imaginative, affordable graphic designer who fully understands your business. But for most startups, a brilliant logo is simply not required. You do, however, need a professional logo. 

Unless design is at the heart of your business (e.g. you need innovative packaging design for your food products) all a logo needs to be is a logotype.

A logotype is a name set in a nice, distinctive typeface. Here are some examples:

Logotypes design

No squiggles, swooshes, motifs or icons; there’s nothing clever going on here at all. All of them are just names, typed out in a well-chosen font, some distinctively coloured. Despite this simplicity, all of them are perfectly respectable logos.

I'm very aware that even simple logotypes like this are harder to achieve than they look. So most people would be well advised to ask a graphic designer to create a logotype for them.

Give your designer a restrictive brief; don't ask them to 'have some fun' or 'show me your creativity'. Just ask them for three or four simple logotype options.

If you feel the need, you can get more creative later, once you know who your audience is and what they want – and when you can afford to invest in developing a full visual identity. This is not the time; you have more important things to spend time and money on. Right now, you just need solid Foundation Branding.

Action: At startup stage, get a recommended graphic designer to design you a logotype, and keep it simple.

4. How do I get a great (cheap) website?

'Web builder' tools have been around for more than a decade, but it's only in the last couple of years that they've made huge leaps forward in terms of design, usability and affordability.

Of course, if you're technophobic or a complete klutz on PC or Mac, then the best web-building tool on the planet isn't going to help you build a great site. You do need some basic skills, so if you don't have these, you'll need to find someone who does – although this doesn't necessarily need to be a professional web designer, who would probably be a hammer to crack a nut.

Simply choose a template as a start point and you – or your friendly assistant – just needs to modify the template. Once it's in place, you'll easily be able to manage small changes and add new content moving forward. The days of a small business needing a 'webmaster' to manage and maintain their website are, thankfully, long gone.

I've built about a dozen sites using Squarespace. I'm not a techie and don't write code, so I love this platform. It's intuitive, with a strong focus on design, so it's particularly good for building sites that are rich in visuals and lighter on text. It includes integrated blogging and SEO functions, as well as links to all social media networks.

Squarespace also has built-in e-commerce, although this isn't really it's strong point and there are limitations. Crucially, every Squarespace template is designed to be responsive - they work brilliantly across all devices – which is an absolute non-negotiable, must-have these days. The templates themselves are fairly restrictive in terms of 'customisability', but that's Squarespace's strength – these restrictions effectively prevent non-creatives from building ugly sites!

If you need to build a dedicated e-commerce site with pro features like stock control, then Shopify is hard to beat. Templates tend to be focused more on function than on 'beauty', but most templates will give you a smart, professional site – and most will be responsively-designed for viewing on tablets, smartphones etc.

There are of course other platforms out there, and Wordpress just gets better and better all the time, with a vast marketplace of templates to choose from. Wix also has an excellent reputation, though I haven't used it myself. Almost all platforms offer free trials, allowing you to dabble before making a financial commitment. And all will give you the ability to grow your site as and when you have more to say and show.

Action: There's never been a better time for business owners to manage their own websites, so use the brilliant platforms that are now available. If you lack technical confidence, ask someone a bit more techy to set the site up for you.


If you can afford to get a branding professional to get you a business name with an available .com domain, design your logo and build your website, then of course you should go ahead.

But I hope this post gives you a few pointers that will help you to keep your Foundation Branding, and your spend, to a minimum.

In theory, you could spend less than £50 ($80) registering new domains yourself; or around £1000 – £5000 ($1500 – $7000) if you buy an off-the-peg 'brandable' domain. A logotype design should come in under £500 ($800) if you give the designer a really tight brief. Finally, web-builder hosting will cost around £200 ($500) per year – a bit more if you need feature-rich e-commerce site, or if you need to pay someone to help you set up the site.

For most startups, this is all they need to invest in branding pre-launch.

Remember, this is a startup – you don't know how things are going to pan out yet. Foundation Branding that gives you the flexibility to change direction is REALLY important – and luckily this means keeping things simple. And if you have almost no money, there's a lot you can do without professional help.

This said, bear in mind that stuff like searching for domains and building your own website burns through time like you wouldn't believe! So make sure that saving money on branding isn't costing you time and money somewhere else.

Branding is important and relevant for any business, but it's not the magic bullet the experts claim. You need to think about it, but you shouldn't agonise over it too much. In my experience branding a startup is as much about avoiding mistakes as it is making things perfect. And if you've got your Foundation Branding right, you can come back to it and develop it later.

Where branding a startup is concerned, until you know more, less is more.



How to market a startup with no budget > 

The top 3 biggest and smallest problems faced by startups >


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